The surprise withdrawal of the UK from the Erasmus+ international exchange programme was one of the most unlikely and disappointing revelations of the post-Brexit trade deal. In an attempt to quash the devastation of many students and university staff, the UK government loudly and proudly proposed their shiny new Turing Scheme. This empty new proposal pales in comparison to the real thing and is currently nothing more concrete than political spiel.
The Scottish and Welsh Governments issued a joint statement on the 26th January criticising the UK Government’s decision and announcing they have started talks with the EU to re-join Erasmus. Students’ opportunities have been gambled unfairly and there is hope that the Scottish Government’s actions on this issue will put students first and save the valuable connections that Erasmus brings to Scotland.
Founded in 1987, Erasmus is a well-established, richly funded exchange programme providing international mobility for a community of millions of young people from its 37 participating countries. Through Erasmus, young people across Europe can take part in funded study, work and sporting opportunities with the majority of its aid going to schools and colleges in underprivileged areas.
The EU commission found in 2014 that 64% of employers think international experience is important for recruitment and students with this experience do better in both education and employment. The Prime Minister had repeatedly stated that Erasmus was not in jeopardy during Brexit negotiations but has subsequently argued that it failed to deliver ‘good value for money’, forgetting the many other benefits of the exchanges, not least the billions they bring to the UK economy.
The Turing Scheme will notably only fund students at universities, colleges and schools, delivering a major blow to those in apprenticeships or other forms of work placement who previously had access to Erasmus. Thus, the new scheme unfairly penalises those who are less privileged.
It will also abandon decades-old connections between our universities and some of the most prestigious in Europe with no guarantee of their participation in the new UK version. It is also unclear if the Turing Scheme will fund foreign students to come to the UK, a crucial and hugely beneficial aspect of the Erasmus exchange. Despite its bold promises of global opportunity, the Turing Scheme currently has no funding and no international backing. In other words, it could be yet another empty promise from the British government.
Scotland is proportionally the bigger participator and beneficiary of Erasmus in UK, so it is understandable our students and universities are the most upset about being dragged out of the scheme. Indeed, much of the pull for the fee-paying English and international students who underpin the finances of our higher education establishments is the four-year degree programme, offering more opportunity to go abroad.
There is also a dire need for people with language skills in Scotland and Erasmus’ contribution to this cannot go unnoticed. Edinburgh University is committed to Erasmus funding until the end of the 2022/23 session. The budget for the following programme (2021-27) has already been discussed and the UK has opted out. We must hope that Scotland manages to resolve the issue without a break in funding.
Education is a devolved power, meaning the Scottish government is well within its right to break from the rest of the UK on this matter. Northern Ireland have set the precedent for this as their participation in Erasmus was protected and will be funded by the Irish government. However, a more solid line in the political sand raises concerning questions about the mobility between UK universities for students. It is also unclear how they will be able to afford such a costly scheme without the help of Westminster.
Holyrood likes nothing more than to point the finger at Westminster’s errors but on this matter, they may be inciting an extremely important rebellion from the devolved parliaments. Despite many unanswered questions of the logistical aspects of re-joining, for now we can be grateful that the voices of concerned students are being listened to and that at least some people in government recognise the true value of Erasmus.